When to give up on a MOOC course

For the first time, I am considering dropping a course more than halfway through completing it. The course is Chemicals and Health – Johns Hopkins University | Coursera, and it has turned out to be quite a disappointment. I was looking forward to learning more about toxicology and how to interpret research to determine the effects of novel chemicals on human health.

Unfortunately, that’s not what I got. There was one excellent unit on toxicology, but the rest of the course really didn’t offer much that interested me. It gave cursory overviews of biomonitoring and the methods  and nomenclature that researchers use when measuring the health effects of chemicals (e.g. acute versus chronic effects,  blood sampling versus urine sampling),  but didn’t ask students to apply any of this knowledge by interpreting research.

The thing that really disappointed me, though, was one of the first homework assignments, which required students to watch “The Story of Cosmetics” on YouTube and then post responses. (I’m not linking the video here because I don’t want to drive any more traffic to it than already exists, but if you are curious about it you can Google it I’m sure you’ll find it.) The video is propaganda against the use of novel chemicals in cosmetics. Now, I actually agree  with the video’s creator that there are chemicals being used in cosmetics that should not be there because they aren’t good for human health and/or cause problems when they enter the sewage system. But I don’t like the videos hand-sweepingly broad classification of sodium lauryl sulfate (a detergent derived from coconut oil that some people are allergic* to but most people handle just fine) along with lead (which is poisonous to every human), or that it doesn’t distinguish between ethyl mercury and methyl mercury (neither of which should be in cosmetics, but one of which is a very useful preservative in medicine that does not linger in the body or cause any of the effects that panickers claim it does.)

The homework assignment asked people to post their reactions to the video on a discussion board. There were lots of reactions like “I am afraid to wash my hair now,” which is exactly what the course instructor should have expected when they hadn’t taught their students to evaluate propaganda and scientific claims. Worse, when people who did understand how to properly evaluate this material and posted a more nuanced reaction to the video, they’d get barraged with comments like,  “But that is what industry wants you to think.”

Course staff didn’t moderate these discussions, so they just became a big fat nexus of anti-scientific panic.

There is one homework assignment left, and I’m considering just not doing it.  It would be really easy to complete (all the assignments so far have been way too easy for a course that advertised itself as college-level), but I’m not interested in earning the certificate. I’d be kind of embarrassed to show it to anyone.

C’mon, Johns Hopkins. You’re world-famous for your medical school. You can do better than this.


*I mean allergic in the colloquial sense, not in the medical sense.



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